The sub-discipline of tropical medicine furnishes a clear example of the socially constructed character of medical knowledge. Tropical diseases first enter medical discourse as a unique conceptual field and topic for specialization at the end of the 19th century, and the heyday of tropical medicine--from the 1890s to the First World War--corresponds to the golden age of Western colonialism in Africa and Asia. This correspondence was not accidental; tropical medicine both gave practical aid to colonial powers faced with unfamiliar disease environments and furnished a deeply Eurocentric view of disease well-suited to the ideology of colonial expansion. As a consequence of this approach, little attention was given to the social factors of disease (work conditions, poverty, malnutrition), and the health of native populations was largely ignored. Subsequent periods of research in tropical medicine have, with decolonization and infusions of money from American foundations, been obliged to confront the consequences stemming from the discipline's formation as an instrument of colonial subjugation.
Snowden, Naples in the Time of Cholera, chapter 5-7, conclusion
This course consists of an international analysis of the impact of epidemic diseases on western society and culture from the bubonic plague to HIV/AIDS and the recent experience of SARS and swine flu. Leading themes include: infectious disease and its impact on society; the development of public health measures; the role of medical ethics; the genre of plague literature; the social reactions of mass hysteria and violence; the rise of the germ theory of disease; the development of tropical medicine; a comparison of the social, cultural, and historical impact of major infectious diseases; and the issue of emerging and re-emerging diseases.
This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring 2010.